Staying connected while traveling is a necessity these days, whether you need to monitor work or just need data to navigate a new place.
Major cell phone providers each have their own offerings to stay connected abroad, typically costing $10 per day or more. While it's not quite perfect, we think Google offers the best international phone plan for travelers to stay connected
It's called Google Fi, and the service stands far above every carrier for international phone and data service. It's the cheapest, easiest, and most effective international phone plan, period, with coverage in 200-plus countries – almost always at lightning-fast speeds.
Over the years, Google Fi has rolled out new enhancements like beta service for iPhones and a new, unlimited data plan – in addition to the pay-as-you-go international data model. It can easily be the best cell phone plan for travelers, whether you make it your main cell phone carrier or just turn it on and off while traveling.
Here's our review of why Google Fi is the best option.
How Google Fi Works
It's safe to say that Google Fi isn't quite like other cell phone service providers.
Rather than running its own network of cell phone towers, Google Fi piggybacks on the networks of T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular in the U.S. to keep you connected at home. The result is 5G connectivity across much of the U.S., and a 4G connection elsewhere.
There are just a few pockets where domestic service is weak, including much of Alaska. But even in Hawaii, you can expect a strong 5G signal.
Google Fi International Coverage
Google Fi also offers coverage in more than 200 countries or territories and counting. Check out the full list of countries, and you'll see that every major destination (and many of the smaller, less-touristed spots) is covered, from Albania to Zambia.
Very few countries don't make the list: Cuba, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria won't have coverage, nor will many small island nations in the South Pacific and many East African countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.
Safe to say, you'll likely have coverage no matter where you're heading. And it will almost always be at blazing fast 5G or 4G speeds, which means you can also easily use your phone as a hotspot to connect via laptop when you need it.
One note: Google gets mixed reviews for its actual cellular phone service – especially when abroad. In our experience, Google Fi is best for international data connectivity. If that's your primary concern, you'll probably be thrilled with Google Fi. If you're making a ton of phone calls during your travels, you may want to think twice about switching.
But that's only half the equation. Google Fi is great on your wallet, too.
How Much Google Fi Costs
Unlike traditional cell phone carriers that levy big charges for international service, the prices don't change whether you're at home or abroad.
And Google Fi now offers two plan pricing options:
- Pay-as-you-go starting at $20 per month plus $10/gigabyte of data for one user (and free after 6GB each month), plus unlimited texting worldwide; unlimited calling in the U.S.; calls worldwide for 20 cents per minute; free Wi-Fi calling worldwide. Data speeds are slower after using 15GB each month. This is the plan many members of the Thrifty Traveler team use & love.
- An unlimited plan starting at $70/month for one user, with unlimited texting worldwide; unlimited calling in the U.S.; 22GB of high-speed data per month when traveling internationally (slower speeds after 22GB of data usage); free international calling from the U.S. to 50 countries; calls worldwide for 20 cents per minute; free Wi-Fi calling worldwide; and unlimited data in the U.S., Canada & Mexico.
Here's a look at the monthly cost breakdowns between the two Google Fi plans for one cell phone line. Keep in mind those per-line rates will drop as you add more lines to your plan. And note that “Simply Unlimited” plans don't include international service, period – you'll want to skip that.
We think these two plan options give Google Fi some unbeatable flexibility to suit travelers' needs. Want high-speed service at home and while traveling without having to think about it? The Unlimited plan is probably right for you. It's roughly the same as what you'd pay with any major carrier – but will keep you connected no matter where you travel without paying a penny more.
Looking for a service just to take with on your travels while keeping your favorite phone and provider at home? The flexible plan could easily make sense, depending on how much you plan to travel abroad.
And there's one unsung benefit that makes it even more compelling.
Pause Your Service When You Don't Need It
That's right. You can pause your service when you don't need it – and not pay a dime to do so.
This is one of the most generous policies you'll find among cell phone providers. If you only want Google Fi when traveling, this ability to pause your service in three-month spans is unbeatable.
Google allows you to pause your Google Fi service for up to three months at a time – but you can continually go back to extend the pause as needed. Or log back in and resume your service earlier.
Pausing your account is as simple as logging in online or via its smartphone app. It will automatically resume when your three-month pause lapses, but you can choose to re-pause the account.
Google doesn't explicitly cap how often you can pause Fi service, though the company does say: “Repeatedly pausing Fi is a violation of our Terms of Service.” So that's something to be aware of if you're planning to use Google Fi sporadically.
iPhones Work (But Not Great)
If there's one hangup with Google Fi service, it's this: It's not really designed for iPhones.
Sure, Google has introduced the ability to bring over almost any iPhone to Google Fi service – almost any model running iOS 12 or higher will work. But this functionality has been in beta mode for years, which results in some pretty drastic limitations when running Fi on an iPhone including:
- iPhones can't switch networks on the Google Fi service, so you'll stay on T-Mobile.
- Apple devices can't make calls or send texts over Wi-Fi
- Tethering and Wi-Fi hotspots won't work when traveling abroad
- iMessage should work just fine, but texting other devices requires some additional setup.
It can work just fine, to be sure. But Google has really designed this service to work best with its own devices.
Great Phones … with Amazing Photos
Maybe you're a diehard Apple fan who will be buried with your iPhone. That's OK, you're not alone. But Google's Pixel phones are worth a second look if you ask us. The interface may feel foreign at first, but it's straightforward and easy to use.
But whether you go for the entry-level Pixel 5a for just $299 or splurge for the brand new Pixel 6 Pro for $899, one thing is for sure: You can take some killer photos. While the new iPhone 13 Pro piles on accolades, we still think that for the money, the Pixel takes some of the best photos with little help or editing.
Here's an unaltered shot from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan.
And another of Muscat, Oman using the Pixel's outstanding “Night Sight” mode.
And here's another from Singapore's famous Gardens by the Bay.
Why bring another camera when you can slip a Pixel in your pocket? We think these photos are that good – for all but the professionals out there, it should make your camera irrelevant.
You can pick up these phones for fairly cheap, either as part of a monthly installment or paying upfront. At the time of publication, the Pixel 5a is currently just $299 when you activate your Google Fi service within 30 days of purchase – or just $15 per month for the device. Or pick up the Pixel 6 starting at $25 a month or $599.
But hold tight, these phones go on sale many times a year including Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
A Warning for Digital Nomads & Frequent Travelers
We really think Google Fi is the perfect solution to stay connected for most travelers heading abroad. But it won't be right for absolutely everyone.
In the last few years, Google has started to crack down on Fi subscribers who spend months at a time away from home, suspending service until they return to the U.S. The reason? Google Fi's terms require users to use their service “primarily” in the United States. That means you could quickly run into problems if you're living abroad or spending months traveling internationally.
But for the average traveler who heads abroad just a few weeks a year, Google Fi should be great.
Google Fi Review: Our Final Thoughts
Whether you want an everyday phone that keeps you connected abroad or a travel-only phone, we think Google Fi is far and away the best option. While the hiccups with using iPhones still aren't quite smoothed out yet, the price, convenience, and speed of Google Fi easily beats other major carriers' international plans.